For twenty years during the 1920s and 1930s Richard Halliburton rampaged the world, masquerading as a traveler with a "guardian-devil" as an accomplice tempting him to do one outrageous stunt after another--swimming the Panama Canal, crossing the Alps on an elephant, making a winter ascent of Mount Fuji, stowing away on a ship, sneaking into Gibraltar and taking forbidden photographs, spending the night at the Taj Mahal and making a moonlit swim in one of its pools, tracking down in Siberia the assassin of Russia's Czar, spending a year hopping around the world in a small plane, acquiring a couple of slaves in Timbuktu, traveling with a monkey and an organ-grinder in South America, making an attempt on Mecca.
He wrote seven best-selling books, one that lasted for over two years on the list. He was a huge attraction on the lecture circuit. He became a household name and was often parodied and a subject of cartoonists. He was an ardent self-promoter, the Kim Kardashian of his time. His biographer Jonathon Root proclaimed in his book "Halliburton, The Magnificent Myth," that "he was the recipient of more praise, adulation, contempt and ridicule than any other public figure of his time." When he was lost at sea in 1939 sailing a Chinese Junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco for its World's Fair, it was widely believed to be another of his publicity stunts. It wasn't until seven months later that he was officially declared dead at the age of 39.
Despite his relentless quest to distinguish himself as the greatest traveler of all time (he considered titling his first book "Ulysses Junior"), only once in all of his travels does he utilize the bicycle as a means of transport. He did not embrace that caveat that the getting there is more important than the destination for the genuine traveler. He was a destination-oriented traveler and hardly dwelled on the actual travel. Though he did dabble with traveling by bicycle at the start of his career, he was not won over and failed to recognize that there is no better nor fulfilling way to travel nor a better means of gaining an understanding of a place and its people.
Halliburton had that intuition, as he intended to make his first big adventure a bike trip around Europe.
He had just graduated from Princeton. His parents offered him a graduation present of three-months in Europe. That wasn't enough for him. His desire was to spend a year or more traveling the world and writing a book about it. He knew the conventional, office-bound life wasn't for him. His goal was to become the world's most traveled person and to write about his travels. He had already had an article published in "Field and Stream" about a trip out west and had served as editor of a Princeton publication. He had previously been to Europe as a 19-year old and was fully infected with a lust for travel and adventure.
After graduating in 1921 he and a friend found work as deck hands on a ship sailing from New York to Germany. When they arrived, they bought two bikes and set out to explore Europe. They only made it as far as Rotterdam, where they sold the bikes after just a couple of weeks. In his book about those travels, "The Royal Road to Romance" published in 1925, Halliburton doesn't explain why or even offer much commentary on their biking other than they rode very leisurely from village to village and saw lots of people on bikes in Holland. The most poignant observation on his biking was in a letter to his parents published in a book of his letters after his death. He wrote from Amsterdam after 175 miles of biking, "I never got such complete satisfaction out of anything before and am happy every minute of it." He did concede however that they hadn't managed more than sixty miles a day and implied that there had been struggles but that they were becoming more accustomed to the effort it required. But there is not a peep extolling his love of the bike in his book. Nor does he exalt their efforts or celebrate all the difficulties they conquered as he does of other of his efforts.
Halliburton went on to Paris on his own and after a couple of weeks of giving dancing lessons bought another bike. He offers no explanation why he decided to resume the cycling, as if it might indict him for quitting earlier. He bicycles through the Loire Valley, spending more time lingering at the many chateaux than actually biking. When he can't decide where to go next, he resorts to taking a train to Bordeaux with his bike, planning to venture into Spain.
He only remains faithful to the bike for a few days more to Carcassone. He sends the bike on to Marseilles while he continues on alone to Spain. This was before he realized that he needed to manufacture adventure rather than letting it come to him, otherwise he could have cycled into the Pyrenees and attempted the great climbs of The Tour de France that had been introduced to The he Race only a few years before in 1910. He could have ridden the "Circle of Death," four of its most intimidating climbs, and tackled the Tourmalet and recounted the agonies of The Tour riders, and the epithet of The Tour winner Octave Lapize, who called Tour officials at the summit of the Aubisque "assassins" for inflicting such punishment upon them. Or he could have reenacted Eugene Christophe's legendary repair of his fork after crossing the Tourmalet in the 1913 race.
But Halliburton was still a novice at the travel writing business and didn't realize he needn't to add drama to his travels to separate them from the rest. It took him two years to find a publisher for his first book and considerable rewriting, purging his book of philosophizing and injecting as much action into it as he could. As it was, no major publisher accepted his book. He had to settle on a concern in Indianapolis run by a fellow Princeton alum.
He was often criticized for exaggeration and fabrication, especially his moonlit swim at the Taj Mahal. Critics claimed the pool was only three inches deep and couldn't be swum. He was so galled by the criticism that he returned to the Taj on his around the world plane trip some ten years after his first visit to repeat the swim. When he jumped into a Mayan well in the Yucatan as recounted in his third book, he knew he needed proof so returned the next day with a photographer and repeated his leap.
His first book not only took him around Europe and on to India and Japan, but also included Cambodia, where he was among the first Americans to visit the recently discovered ruins of Angor Wat. There is no disputing Halliburton was a most committed traveler seeking out rarely visited, isolated places and his capacity to rough it. But he did not travel purely for the pleasure and joy of it. From the very start he considered it a job. He was clearly driven by fame and fortune. In his letters to his parents on that first trip, he complained, "I've always heard the writer's life is calm and independent. Its not true. No bricklayer ever worked any harder than I am doing...Its no vacation, its no postgraduate year, its serious business."
One of the reasons he may have given up on the biking is that it exhausted him too much. In a letter to his parents he said he only had energy to write 500 words at the end of the day rather than his usual 1,000. He disposed of his bike on that first trip in Monaco, less than 200 miles from Marseilles, where he had resumed his cycling along the Mediterranean. Never again in the next 18 years of his travels did he take advantage of the bicycle, despite the countless possibilities it could have provided for adventure and also to accomplish something out of the ordinary. Instead he specialized in swimming--along with the Panama Canal and the Taj Mahal, he swam across the Hellespont, as did Byron, and the Nile and a few other bodies of water, though not the English Channel. Nor did he attempt Niagara Falls in a barrel, though he did visit it and mentioned that others had.
He could have made a bike trip of many of his escapades, such as the 230 mile route that Cortez took to Mexico City when he conquered the Aztecs or the escape route of John Wilkes Booth after shooting Lincoln. In book after book he could have enriched his adventure with the bike, but stuck to standard means of travel, even when he was short of cash and had to evade conductors on trains.
His second book kept him in Europe as he retraced the wanderings of his hero Ulysses. He imagined himself a modern-day Ulysses and considered entitling his first book "Ulysses Junior." He called his Ulysses book "The Glorious Adventure," adopting his favorite adjective, a word that turns up sixty times or more in some of his books. Surprisingly not once in any of his books or his collection of letters does he utilize the other favorite word of travel writers--"ubiquitous." It is a word that almost authenticates a travel book, as any writer with a keen eye will find something out of the ordinary that turns up with uncommon frequency in a new land. Those critics of Haliburton who found him ridiculous and inauthentic could add this as further evidence to their case.
He does provide a variation on at least one of travel writing's cliches. It is quite common for travel writers to speak of a "guardian angel" looking out for them. I have had that sensation my self. Bettina Selby mentions a guardian angel in nearly every one of her nine cycle touring books. Haliburton, too, comments from time to time of a guardian angel, but more often he refers to a "guardian devil" whispering in his ear to do something that might get him in trouble with the authorities or could cause him harm. Usually he goes along with it. He was a student of travel literature. Before he found a publisher for his first book he took a stroll through Brentano's book store in New York and acknowledged there were dozens of authors doing what he was trying to do and that he had to do better. He didn't want his book to be described as "the trivial diary of a globetrotter," as the "London Times" reviewed one such book.
His third book, "New Worlds to Conquer," subtitled "America's most dashing 1920s adventurer explores South America," is packed with authentic adventures, including his ten day swim of the fifty mile length of the Panama Canal through the locks and all. It held the number one spot on the non-fiction best-seller list for nearly two years. He hit his stride with this book. It had less silliness than his previous books, and though it still had its share of contrived adventures, there was at least some merit to them. His next book, "The Flying Carpet," about his flight around the world, he likewise manages to keep the contrived to a minimum and find interesting and out of the ordinary stories and places, including the training grounds of France's Foreign Legion in Africa.
After four consecutive best sellers, magazines and newspapers were throwing money at him to contribute stories. His publisher told him to "go any place in the world you choose, and write whatever pleases you." That resulted in "Seven League Boots." He went to Cuba and Russia and the Greek Peninsula of Mont Athos that is comprised of twenty communities of monks and forbids females, even of the four-legged kind. This was more a book of reportage than adventure, though it concluded with his crossing of the Alps on an elephant, duplicating the feat of Hannibal in 218 B.C. As with his Panama Canal swim this brought him world wide attention. Hundreds of people, including reporters and photographers, flocked to the road to see this stunt. The Parisian circus elephant he rented became "the most photographed, admired, discussed, described elephant in history," just as he wanted to be himself.
He was becoming more and more hard-pressed to top himself. He took some time off to build a monument of a house on a cliff side in Laguna Beach, California and to write two books for a juvenile audience that were a compilation of his favorite places in the world. They were titled "Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels: The Occident," and "Richard Halliburton's Second Book of Marvels: The Orient." The books were laced with photographs and retold many of his adventures--swimming the Panama Canal, climbing Mount Fuji, visiting Angkor Wat. These was no mention of his bicycling in Europe, nor any encouragement of utilizing the bicycle as a means of travel.
After he completed these books he went to Hong Kong to build a Chinese Junk to sail across the Pacific. It wouldn't be just another adventure for a book and his lectures, but also a prime attraction at the World's Fair in San Francisco that he could sell tickets to board. He also planned on making money selling souvenirs. He was ever the entrepreneur. He had all sorts of problems building it. His departure was delayed by two months, as changes had to be made after various test sails. He and his drew disappeared in a typhoon less than three weeks after setting out. No debris was ever discovered.
Though he is largely forgotten, he is commemorated by a large bell tower at Rhodes College in Memphis. His parents provided $400,000 to build it in 1962.
A publisher specializing in classic travel books reissued his first book on the centennial of his birth in 2000. One can also visit his grave in Memphis, as Janina and I did last January. His life is another lesson in how much better it could have been had he remained true to the bicycle rather than forsaking it.